DATE March 12, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Reporters Matthew Kauffman and Lisa Chedekel discuss
problems in the military's mental health system
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The American military is increasingly relying on psychotropic medications,
like anti-anxiety pills and antidepressant, to keep service members in combat,
according to a series published in the Hartford Courant. The series, called
"Mentally Unfit: Forced to Fight," investigated problems in the military's
mental health system. It also reported that the military has deployed,
retained and redeployed troops with psychological problems in violation of its
own regulation. A growing number of troops with posttraumatic stress disorder
have been sent back to Iraq for second, third and fourth tours of duty. These
articles were published last May. Last month, the reporters, Matthew Kauffman
and Lisa Chedekel, won a George Polk Award, which will be presented at a
ceremony April 12th. We invited them to tell us what they learned. They had
set out to investigate what happens when a soldier has a pronounced mental
I asked them how mental health problems are treated in combat.
Mr. MATTHEW KAUFFMAN: Technically, and then there are kind of different
kinds of psychiatric disorders that might come up in the theater if it's
pre-existing or if it's in theater, but the sort of classic combat stress that
a soldier suffers some sort of stress on the battlefield, typically what the
military does, if anything, is kind of remove them sort of half a step back
from the front and what they call "three hots and a cot," kind of give them,
you know, a decent bed to sleep in and a shower they can get and maybe some
better food, and then often puts them on antidepressant medication or sleep
medication. And then 72 hours later, even though that's less time than the
medication takes to work if it's going to work at all, they go right back to
the front. And we have found a lot of folks in the military that thought that
that was therapeutically a good idea. But an awful lot of people outside the
military, in the psychiatric community, they thought it was a mistake.
Ms. LISA CHEDEKEL: And the other issue we found, Terry, in terms of
treatment in combat was a heavy reliance on psychotropic drugs, which was news
to some people. I mean, it's the first war that's been fought since the
SSRIs, which are the big class of psychotropic drugs, have been developed.
And we found that increasingly, as the war progressed, the military was
relying on Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, Celexa, Wellbutrin. That was a concern for
mental health professionals because the FDA has cautioned and experts agree
that you have to really carefully monitor somebody who is placed on those
medications, especially early on. There can be an increase in suicidal
impulses or homicidal impulses, and you have to provide counseling and
monitoring. Well, that's very hard to do in a war zone, closely monitor
somebody. And it's also, you know, difficult to stay in touch with that
soldier when you've sent him back to his unit and that kind of thing. So we
looked pretty closely at the use of those drugs, found a number of instances,
anecdotally, from soldiers, both alive and those who had killed themselves in
combat, where they had been placed on these drugs in some cases shortly before
committing suicide, had been put on these drugs without counseling, without
close monitoring, ended up going into a Port-a-Potty, pulling the trigger,
killing themselves. And the family learned after the fact that there had been
medication dispensed to the soldier soon before this happened.
GROSS: Are antidepressants considered to be effective in dealing with the
type of depression or combat stress that soldiers face in war zones?
Mr. KAUFFMAN: There is some early clinical work on medication and PTSD. I
mean, they haven't sort of specifically tested antidepressants on a combat
stress population. There is, at least anecdotally, some suggestion that it
may sort of be a helpful thing, but it's more an issue. Folks we talked to
did not say, and we certainly didn't report in the story, that
antidepressants, you know, among the military population is a bad idea, that,
you know, should never be given. But there are some sort of requirements that
the FDA has, that the psychiatric community has for the use of them, and
that's sort of where we found that things fell apart.
Where there is decent evidence that they do not work is in the short term and
that they take somewhere from two weeks to up to six weeks before they sort of
have a therapeutic and a valuable effect. And that's where there's a real
disconnect between how they were being used in the military and how the
research community says they ought to be used.
GROSS: Now, you found that there were several instances where soldiers were
clearly behaving suicidally and had threatened suicide, and that behavior was
ignored or overlooked, and they ended up killing themselves. Would you tell
us one of those stories?
Mr. KAUFFMAN: Yeah. We had identified--the military does not identify
suicides. It includes suicide deaths in a much larger pool of nonhostile
deaths. But we had gone through that pool and kind of through a partly
process of elimination and making lots of calls to family, had identified, we
think, every suicide in 2005, and spoke with a number of families. Some of
them for the very first time they had ever spoken outside sort of a very close
circle of family about what had happened to their loved ones.
I spoke to the parents of PFC Jason Scheuerman of Virginia, who had actually
written a suicide note to his mother and e-mailed it to her sort of overnight.
And she woke up to this e-mail saying, you know, `I just--I can't take it
anymore, mom. I'm sorry. I love you but goodbye.' And she was ex-military
herself and sort of understood the military and was able to call through the
chain of command and get to someone in Iraq and get a commander and a chaplain
over to her son in time. And then got an e-mail from him later saying, `Mom,
they think I'm faking. They think I'm just making all this up to get out of
work.' And they ultimately cut off his contact with his parents and they gave
him sort of menial jobs and punished him and humiliated him. And within a
number of days following that, he had slipped away and shot himself. We found
a number of very tragic cases like that.
Lisa, why don't you talk about Jeff Henthorn?
Ms. CHEDEKEL: Jeff Henthorn was a 25-year-old soldier from small-town
Choctaw, Oklahoma, who was deployed to Iraq for the first time early in the
war. He came home and the family immediately noticed signs of what they
thought was combat stress. He was different. He was having nightmares. He
was talking about an incident where his tank he was in rolled over a young
Iraqi boy who was about the same age as his young son. So he was--he came
home very different and the family was concerned about it. But did get orders
to redeploy for a second tour.
Shortly before he redeployed, there was an incident at Fort Riley, where he
smashed up his car and took a knife and slashed his arm. The family did not
know about it at the time, but Jeffrey's friends did and his superiors in his
unit were made aware of it. But he was sent back over to Iraq anyway and had
an incident shortly after he got there where another sort of suicide threat
where he locked himself in a portable toilet with his gun. His superiors
thought he might be trying to harm himself, burst in, talked to him for a half
an hour and handed him back his gun. And he did end up killing himself about
six weeks later. So it's a situation where there were clear signs that he was
in distress. I mean, enough that he made at least two suicide gestures. And
his family is, you know, still, two years later--he killed himself in February
'05--searching for answers about how this was allowed to happened.
GROSS: My guests are Matthew Kauffman and Lisa Chedekel. They won a George
Polk Award for their series in the Hartford Courant called "Mentally Unfit:
Forced to Serve."
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: We're talking with Matthew Kauffman and Lisa Chedekel of the Hartford
Courant about their series "Mentally Unfit: Forced to Fight: Investigating
Problems in the Military's Mental Health System." It won a George Polk Award.
So in your investigative series in the Hartford Courant, you've reported that
the military doesn't seem to have taken mental health problems as seriously as
it should have. Some soldiers who exhibited suicidal tendencies were kept in
the war zone. Some of them were redeployed in spite of signs of posttraumatic
stress syndrome. An increasing number of soldiers are being given
psychotropic drugs, like antidepressants, without psychiatric follow-up. Is
there any evidence that this is connected to the fact that the military troops
are kind of stretched thin and there's pressure to maintain troops at certain
Mr. KAUFFMAN: There's no question that the fighting force is stretched thin
and that the military has had some recruiting problems and has lowered
recruiting standards in order to keep the numbers up. And, yeah, there is
some evidence that we got. Certainly there's sort of a widespread belief that
troop shortfalls are an element of this, of why mentally unfit troops may have
been sent in the first place and why troops who developed problems in theater
were kept there nonetheless. And we did speak to at least one military
official who acknowledge that troop strength was an element of this. But it
may not be the only reason that mental health sort of doesn't get the
attention that it deserves in the military, that as a nation we've kind of
been slow to treat mental health the way it should be, and that the military
has kind of a macho, suck-it-up, you know, tough-guy element to it is maybe a
little slower than even the nation as a whole in sort of recognizing and
appreciating mental health issues.
GROSS: Now there is legislation that resulted from your articles, in reaction
to your articles. Why don't you describe it for us?
Ms. CHEDEKEL: Yeah. We actually got, much to our surprise, a fairly quick
congressional reaction from Joe Lieberman and Barbara Boxer, proposing
legislation that would improve predeployment screening and call for more
closely monitoring soldiers who develop psychiatric problems in theater. That
legislation got changed, i.e. a little bit watered down, but was, in fact,
adopted by Congress, basically leaving it to the military to make improvements
to mental health screening and treatment. And in November, the assistant
secretary of defense for health, William Winkenwerder, issued a brand-new set
of guidelines for treating soldiers with psychiatric problems in combat, which
does make some significant changes. It requires that if a soldier is
demonstrating some kind of a mental problem before deployment, that that
soldier should not be deployed unless he's been stable for at least three
months prior to deployment. It talks about if a soldier has been placed on
psychotropic drugs or is taking psychotropic drugs prior to deployment, there
has to be stability and no significant side effects before that soldier can be
deployed. And if there are problems that develop, mental health issues that
develop with a service member in the war zone, that are not resolved within
two weeks, that that service member should be evacuated home or to a hospital
for treatment. That's all new stuff.
I mean, right now, you know, before this policy went into effect, it was very
much broad guidelines on how you screen and treat soldiers. So this is at
least a first step towards strengthening the screening and treatment of troops
in the war zone.
Mr. KAUFFMAN: And especially significant because for years the military has
been telling Congress and then during our reporting have been telling us that
really there was no problem here, that the system in place was adequate and
was working. And so this was sort of the first acknowledgment, frankly, that
we got from the military that maybe some changes were needed, was a fairly
sweeping revamp of their policies.
GROSS: How did you first start writing this story? What got you started on
Mr. KAUFFMAN: It was really sort of a hunch and kind of poking around the
general area. We did know--both Lisa and I were actually kind of looking at
slightly different areas that related to the Iraq war and the military. And
both sort of started wondering that with issues we knew--the troop shortfalls,
and that the lowering of standards, and what appeared to be, you know, just a
gap between what the military needed and what the military was able to get in
terms of manpower--we just wondered if the troops' mental fitness is sort of
getting the attention it deserves, both before they go over and when they're
there and after when they come back from one tour and are headed to another.
So it wasn't really a specific incident or government report or anything like
that. It was just kind of we asked a question and then set out to answer it.
GROSS: Where did you start looking?
Mr. KAUFFMAN: Basically, we sort of start by, you know, reading everything
we can, congressional testimony and military reports and standards and the
like. And then, after a while, from reading stuff and kind of identify who
some of the main players are and who might, you know, be knowledgeable on
this--soldier advocates or people within the government, either in the
military or on the legislative side--and sort of start talking to people. And
then start honing in on people who will be in the story. And so from that,
you know, once we had identified some likely families, started, you know,
frankly, just sort of cold-calling. And that was a very difficult part of
this, calling people kind of out of the blue, suspecting strongly but frankly
not knowing that their loved one had committed suicide. And, you know, week
after week, we had some bunch of difficult calls to make, just calling
families and saying, you know, `We're working on a story about some nonhostile
deaths and, you know, we'd like to talk to you about Bobby' or `about David'
or `about Tina' or, you know, any of a number, and were generally surprised by
the response that found a lot of people almost welcome the call. I mean, had
sort of held this inside them, had never spoken about it and did have
questions and did have concerns. And so that then became a significant part
of it. So it sort of built the story on kind of the, you know, the official
side, the paper-driven side and the statistical side; and then also on the
anecdotal side by talking with families.
GROSS: When you were making these cold calls to families who had the loved
ones that you suspected died of suicide, did you end up telling the family
members things that they didn't know? Did you have information they didn't
Ms. CHEDEKEL: In some cases, yes, we did. In some cases we had put in a
request for investigative reports that are done by the military in these
nonhostile deaths, which have some interviews and a description of what
happened to the soldier. And we had received a number of those reports after
pursuing FOI requests for some months. So in some cases, in fact, we had more
information than the family when we called. We would be either looking at an
investigative report that they hadn't seen. Or in some cases we also had
called, you know, buddies and friends who knew them, knew the soldier while he
was serving in Iraq and had, you know, interviewed them or talked to them on
background. So we--yeah, I mean, odd situation when reporters from
Connecticut are calling out to Oklahoma or Arkansas to a family and actually
have a little more information on the circumstances of the soldier's death.
The sort of thing that stays with Matt and I about the series is the amazing
cooperation we got from families who had lost soldiers to suicide in Iraq. I
mean, these are families who buried, in most cases, sons as war heroes in
these small towns. Had no obligation to disclose that, in fact, there were
mental health problems there, had no obligation to talk about suicide, which
is still very much taboo and a source of stigma, especially in this military
community. I mean, these are not--these are--by and large, the families that
helped us with these series looking at mental health and helped us write these
stories were very much pro-military. You know, second, third generation
soldiers serving, very much pro-war. I mean, a handful were anti-war, but
this, you know, this was very much a pro-military community speaking out and
saying, `My kid died, and the military shouldn't have allowed this to happen.'
GROSS: Are any of the families who had loved ones who committed suicide
considering any follow-up action challenging how the military handled their
son or daughter or spouse's psychiatric problems?
Ms. CHEDEKEL: A number of them have talked about wanting some kind of
accountability from the military. Not necessary financial. Very few have
ever talked about that. They want--you know, they want to know who allowed
this to happen. `Who saw, you know, the signs of suicide or distress and
didn't act on it and left my son or daughter over there.' Because the military
doesn't disclose any actions taken against the superiors for ignoring these
things or anything, and there's no indication in any of the investigative
reports that we have looked at that there are any negative consequences for
overlooking a soldier's mental health problems and--leading to suicide.
A number of the families have wanted to take legal action. The problem is
something called the Ferris doctrine, which actually is a doctrine that
prevents or makes it very difficult to sue the US military. But I--the short
answer is, yes, a number of families have looked into some kind of litigation,
but it's very difficult to sue the military around issues of negligence.
GROSS: Well, I want to congratulate you on the George Polk Award that you won
for your series of articles, and thank you very much for talking with us.
Ms. CHEDEKEL: Thank you, Terry.
Mr. KAUFFMAN: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Matthew Kauffman and Lisa Chedekel are reporters with the Hartford
Courant. Their series, "Mentally Unfit: Forced to Fight," won a George Polk
Award, which will be presented at a ceremony in April.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Author Jonathan Lethem talks about his new novel "You
Don't Love Me Yet," about four young musicians in an alternative
pop band in LA and his Promiscuous Materials Project allowing
anyone to use lyrics he's written
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest Jonathan Lethem won a National Book Critics Circle Award for his
novel, "Motherless Brooklyn," which was a best seller as was his novel, "The
Fortress of Brooklyn." A couple of years ago, he was named a MacArthur fellow,
the so-called "genius award." Lethem's new comic novel, "You Don't Love Me
Yet," is about four young musicians in an alternative pop band in LA who each
have day jobs and are also involved in the performance art world. Let's start
with a reading.
Mr. JONATHAN LETHEM: In this scene the bass player from the band is sitting
with Jules Harvey, who's a party promoter, and Falmouth Strand, who's a
conceptual artist, and the two of them are proposing a kind of opportunity for
the band, which at this point hasn't had very many of those.
(Reading) `Jules is a promoter,' said Falmouth. `We're collaborating on a
`I have a rather large lot,' said Jules Harvey, apologetically.
`It's going to be a dance party,' said Falmouth, `Only the rule is you can't
bring anyone you know and you have to wear headphones. You have to listen to
whatever you prefer to dance to, your own mix. If people don't have their own
headphones, we'll provide them at the door, like neckties and jackets at a
club. What I want is a sea of dancing bodies, each to their own private
music. I might call it "party of strangers" or maybe "aparty," like "apart."
`I get it,' said Lucinda.
Falmouth held up a cautioning finger. `There's more. Instead of beginning
and ending gradually and spontaneously, like the usual party, I want the start
to be perfectly regimented. Everyone has to arrive at exactly such and such
o'clock and begin dancing immediately. Latecomers will be turned away, and
then at the end, same thing. I may buy a starter's pistol.'
`Falmouth had been thinking the backdrop ought to be perfect silence,' said
Jules Harvey, `but I suggested it might be even better to have a band playing,
very quietly, with nobody paying any attention.'
`I thought your little consortium might want the gig,' said Falmouth.
GROSS: That's Jonathan Lethem reading from his new novel "You Don't Love Me
Yet." There's another kind of conceptual art piece in your book, and this is a
complaint line. I want you to describe what it is.
Mr. LETHEM: Well, right. The complaint line, it's a storefront and in this
case, a gallery, which in this case has been turned into a kind of office
space, where people sit in cubicles, in this case, all women, and one of them
is the base player in the band, and they answer telephones that have been
advertised as a complaint line, and it's not a complaint about any given
subject. It's a kind of open-ended, you know, `Whatever your complaint is
we'll take it here.' And they've been instructed to be very patient and kind
of inviting and just copy down whatever the complaints are and be as generally
reassuring as they can be to the callers but, of course, they have no ability
to improve any of the things that are being complained about. And, you know,
I think in a way this artwork, it's a kind of joke about the retail world. I
worked as a bookseller for 10 years before I was a full-time writer, and you
know, one of the things about, you know, meeting the public in a work
environment is that they always do have complaints. Whatever else you're
doing, you might be helping them find a book or a present or doing some other
service, but they'll always have something--some grievance and you're in the
position of a kind of collector of grievances, and I thought, `Well, what if I
just distilled the absolute pure essence of a, you know, encounter--a retail
encounter and stripped it of every other quality.'
GROSS: I actually know a piece that's kind of similar to it but not exactly
Mr. LETHEM: Well...
GROSS: Go ahead.
Mr. LETHEM: Are you thinking of--the apology line is what I'm always
reminded of, and I think it was famous in New York about 10 or 15 years ago.
GROSS: Well, there was one in Philly. I don't know if it's the same one but
it was a DJ on a Philadelphia station who had the apology line, and you would
call in and just like make apologies...
Mr. LETHEM: Right. Right.
GROSS: ...to whoever you had wronged.
Mr. LETHEM: Yeah. This is very much derived from my memory of the stickers
that were all around Manhattan on pay phones and, you know, in bars that said,
you know, `Mr. Apology, call Mr. Apology at this number,' and I think that
was certainly one of my sources for this.
GROSS: Now the bass player in the band works this complaint line, and she has
a complainer who calls a lot and speaks in a really interesting way and she
takes phrases that he says while he's on the phone with her and fashions them
into song titles and lyrics because the real songwriter for the band is
blocked. And so, for instance, he uses the phrase--the complainer uses the
phrase, `Astronaut food,' and she turns that into a song. What is astronaut
food mean in the context that he's using it?
Mr. LETHEM: Oh, boy! It's a funny term to try to really describe.
Astronaut food, as he describes it, is kind of not quite sexual relationship
between two people, members of the opposite sex, or it could be members of the
same sex who kind of keep one another on the shelf as a possible, you know,
emergency backup date or boyfriend or girlfriend. Someone who you don't
quite--you're not honestly, completely platonic about, but you don't quite
have the motivation to really make them into, you know, a front-runner for
your affections. So they're sort of just there in case of emergency. They
like a little packet of astronaut food.
GROSS: So they're the Tang of the love world?
Mr. LETHEM: Right, the Tang of the love world. Yeah--or the peanut butter.
You know, something you've got. And you know it's in the house if you, you
know--you'd never order out and get a jar of peanut butter delivered to your
house, but if you're too lazy to even pick up the phone, you might reach for
GROSS: OK. So the lyricist, you know--the bass player writes a lyric called
"Astronaut Food" and she does this with a bunch of his unique phrases, with
the complainer's unique phrases. So the novel raises the question, is that
plagiarism? Is that like ethically wrong, and should the complainer be
credited as one of the songwriters? What made you think about this issue?
Mr. LETHEM: Well, I--you know, one of the things that I love about pop music
is the way it takes so many phrases, scraps of language that are just floating
around. Vernacular language. Even advertising jingles sometimes get turned
into pop songs, you know. There were a lot of soul songs in the '60s like
`I'd rather fight than switch,' which was taken from a famous cigarette
advertisement or, you know, Buddy Holly took the phrase `That'll be the day,'
from a John Wayne movie called "The Searchers," where John Wayne says this
phrase, `That'll be the day' over and over again, and it amused Buddy Holly,
and so he turned it into a song. And the way this kind of language sort of
belongs to everyone and no one seems very interesting to me. It's very--you
know, it's an example of art that doesn't have absolutely clear source. It
somehow rises out of the collective consciousness to a degree, and then
afterwards it can be a bit of a puzzle trying to figure out where its energy
and power comes from.
GROSS: My guest is Jonathan Lethem. His new novel is called "You Don't Love
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Jonathan Lethem, author of the novels, "Motherless
Brooklyn" and "The Fortress of Solitude." His new novel, "You Don't Love Me
Yet," is about four musicians in an alternative pop band who discover it's a
fine line between inspiration and plagiarism.
So, you know, you wrote a recent article in Harper's magazine about plagiarism
and appropriation, and you come down strong in favor of how artists should
have the right to appropriate. Is there a line, though, for you between
appropriation and plagiarism?
Mr. LETHEM: Well, you know, for the sake of that piece, and I still, you
know, kind of like to think this way, I decided to just render plagiarism a
value-neutral term. Instead of talking about plagiarism as if it was
automatically a shameful, horrible thing to be accused of or to admit to, you
know, maybe we could instead talk about good and bad plagiarism. I mean,
everyone recognizes the reprehensible, you know, uninspired covert borrowing
as a, you know, kind of pathetic thing to do when someone passes off someone
else's work as their own, especially, of course, in an academic or
journalistic context, or when someone leans so heavily on someone else's work
as a source and never says that that's where the material comes from, anyone
can agree that it's, you know, very bad, very shameful.
But the fact that right next door to these, you know, easily condemnable
practices are all sorts of other practices that are very typical of the arts
is rarely, I think, completely understood or let alone accepted. Everyone
learns, for instance, to create things by imitating other things. Languages
are acquired imitatively and so are creative languages, and art doesn't come
from nowhere. It's cobbled together out of sources, out of influences and,
well, you know, sometimes it's Buddy Holly taking "That'll be the day" out of
John Wayne's mouth. You know, do we wish him not to have responded that way
to that line of dialogue? I doubt it.
GROSS: You know, in keeping with your thinking that appropriation is a good
and necessary thing for artists to do, you've made several of your stories
available for adaptation into the form of a play or screenplay. Tell us why
you decided to do that.
Mr. LETHEM: Well, I mean, I think the first thing that's important to say
about that choice is that it's not that unusual. What's unusual is that I'm
sort of announcing it. I'm bragging about it a lot. I'm making it very...
GROSS: Well, you're saying you wouldn't charge for it, too.
Mr. LETHEM: ...overt. But...
Mr. LETHEM: ...you know what, Terry, the truth is there are a lot of artists
who--a lot of writers, let's say--who at times will give away some of their
writing in some sense. They'll either write something for a benefit anthology
or contribute it to a magazine that doesn't have any funds or if a absolutely
impoverished but very sincere and talented filmmaker or playwright says, `You
know, I really want to make something out of your story. You've got a short
story and I really think it would make a tremendous one-act play but I can't
pay for it,' will quietly instruct their agent to make a little deal for a
dollar. This isn't something I invented. It's very normal. But what I'm
doing is sort of saying, `Hey, look, we give things away sometimes.' That's
part of our work, and I'd like to actually--as it happens, I'd like to do more
of it. I'd like to invite people to come and find some stuff for me to give
away to them. Instead of waiting for it to come to me. And the reason this
seems so important to me is that this--in this realm where people talk about
intellectual property as though it is an absolute concept with very easily
defined terms, and I want to suggest that actually there's an enormous gray
area. There's a really big spectrum between charging for something and giving
it away and that artists are engaged in doing both a lot of the time and that
the impulse to make art necessarily combines these two urges to be rewarded,
you know, to have someone you know, give you something back, but also to set
something free into the world, to add value.
GROSS: So the stories that you basically put up for adoption or adaptation,
did you get any takers?
Mr. LETHEM: Well, yeah, there's a handful of filmmakers who jumped in, and a
couple of people are trying to make plays out of them, too. The part of the
project that actually has had the most immediate action, and it's a lot of
fun, is that I also put some song lyrics up, and because it's, of course, much
easier for a musician or a band to go into a room with a four-track and record
a song and then send me an MP3, I've already gotten 15 or 20 really great,
really funny songs back from these lyrics that I put up as, you know, what I
call promiscuous materials.
GROSS: Well, the songs and the stories that you've made available for people
to, you know, appropriate is called The Promiscuous Materials Project, and I'd
like it if you could play a couple of different melodies that were written for
a lyric of yours that you put on that site. Could you do that?
Mr. LETHEM: Sure. Yeah. The--a great example of the kind of, you know, let
a thousand flowers bloom result of this Web site is the way that songs can
come out sounding so different even though I've--you know, I've offered up the
same lyrics. So here are two different musicians doing the same lyric. It's
John Linnell, familiar to some people as one of the singers in "They Might Be
Giants," and a band from Massachusetts called Haunt, each doing a song called
"The Second Longest Night."
(Soundbites from "The Second Longest Night")
Mr. JOHN LINNELL: (Singing) "Emily of the Continental Divide saying, `Why
don't you bring your friends inside?' You tell her that you'd like to, of
course, but your friends are down drinking at the White Horse. Paula says,
`That girl's got a crush on you.' And you say, `I know but there's nothing I
can do.' The one that's on your mind is dancing with her friend. And she's
telling the joke from Alphaville, again. You can't get anywhere staring at
the one you love. You can't get anywhere staring at the one you love. No,
no, no, no. You can't get anywhere..."
HAUNT: (Singing) "Emily of the Continental Divide saying, `Why don't you
bring your friends inside?' You tell her that you'd like to, of course, but
your friends are down drinking at the White Horse..."
(End of soundbites)
GROSS: OK. That was John Linnell, followed by a band called Haunt, doing
their melodies to a lyric by my guest, Jonatham Lethem, who's made several of
his lyrics available for no fee to whoever wants to use them in a song, and
it's part of what he calls his Promiscuous Materials Project of things that
he's written that he's just putting out there for anybody to use in anyway.
So you're pleased with the results you're getting.
Mr. LETHEM: Well, it's all a lot of fun. I mean, you know, I don't make
any--it's probably important to say I don't make any great claims for this as
lyrics. I think, you know, for my tastes, the best songs are written by, you
know, singer-songwriters whose lyrics are inherent to their musical
expression, and these are--you know, these are a kind of trifle for me, but
what I like a lot is the kind of energy, the physi-improvisional collaborative
energy that comes from throwing stuff out there and having it thrown back at
you. And it's enjoyable to me in principle, as well as because these are
GROSS: Just one more thing. In naming your project, the Promiscuous
Materials Project, did you want to intentionally give the project a kind of
sexual sound to it?
Mr. LETHEM: Yeah. You know, it's kind of a joke about the idea of free
culture equaling free love in some way. But I didn't think that hard on it.
It just seemed like a kind of grabby name. In this case, I'm probably guilty
of being a bit of a, you know, opportunist because the word "promiscuous"
probably has a kind of motility on the Internet that something else might not.
GROSS: Oh, you mean, if somebody googles "promiscuous," they'll find your
project, is that what you mean?
Mr. LETHEM: Who knows, who knows?
GROSS: I'm not sure what motility means, that's why I asked.
Mr. LETHEM: Yeah.
GROSS: OK. Now on your new novel, the cover of the novel is a large
photograph of you, a few years ago, some years ago, I think...
Mr. LETHEM: Many years ago.
GROSS: Many years ago. OK. Sitting on what looks like maybe a college dorm
bed with some kind of like wall hanging behind you and a guitar sitting next
to you, and you look a little uncomfortable.
Mr. LETHEM: Yeah, yeah. I was a bit uncomfortable. You know, the book is
so much about youthful postures, the kind of agonizing pretensions of young
men and women in their 20s sort of trying to make themselves into some kind of
grownup artist, and there I was, I had this picture of myself that seemed to
confess the same truth, and I thought it was a nice way to sort of say, `I'm
not making fun of anybody, or if I am, I'm making fun of myself first, for
having that same kind of mixed-up yearning pretentiousness that young artists
do everywhere.' You know, the irony of trying to become a writer or a painter
or a musician is that you basically have to be a fake first. You have to
pretend to be something before you can possibly persuade yourself or anyone
else that you've got something really interesting to offer and so that
photograph captures me kind of playing at a self that--and it's pretty much
one I abandoned. You know, I'm sitting beside an electric guitar but it looks
like I'm sort of afraid to touch it. And I thought that sort of described,
you know, the degree to which--it kind of answered a question that I knew I
was going to be asked. Because I'd written a book about a band, people were
going to say, `So were you ever in a band?' and I think that's about as close
as I ever got is like I wanted to be seen proximate to an electric guitar. I
wouldn't have dared to pick it up, but I wanted to be on the same, you know,
on the same futon with one.
GROSS: And when you were posing with this guitar, what did you think it was
saying about who you were?
Mr. LETHEM: Well, you know, I mean, you can see I'm trying to like basically
burn a hole in the camera with my gaze. I'm daring you to say that I am, you
know, full of it. So, obviously, I thought that I was about to become, you
know, somehow, miraculously, a rock star but I'm, you know, it's basically a
pose that ought to have been reserved for my bathroom mirror.
GROSS: I should point out you're wearing like white or beige pants here,
which is not--that's not your typical...
Mr. LETHEM: Must you?
GROSS: ...like rock and roll star...
Mr. LETHEM: You already called my apartment a dorm room!
GROSS: Well, we'll have to part on this note. Jonathan Lethem...
Mr. LETHEM: Thanks for having me, Terry.
GROSS: Thanks so much.
Mr. LETHEM: My pleasure.
GROSS: Jonathan Lethem's new novel is called "You Don't Love Me Yet."
Coming up, TV critic David Bianculli reviews the new series, "The Riches,"
staring Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver.
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: TV critic David Bianculli reviews FX cable network's new
drama series, "The Riches"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Tonight on the FX cable network, Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver star in the
new drama series called "The Riches." They play Mr. and Mrs. Rich, a wealthy
couple in a gated community. More accurately, they play a couple playing Mr.
and Mrs. Rich. TV critic David Bianculli has the review and an explanation.
Mr. DAVID BIANCULLI: "The Riches" starts out one way and you think you know
where it's going. Wayne Malloy, played by Eddie Izzard, is a con man.
Actually, he's a modern Louisiana Gypsy, part of a nomadic clan known as
travelers. Like his fellow Gypsies, Wayne and his three kids cruise the South
in a giant, beat-up mobile home, picking out ripe targets for fast cons, pick
pocketing scams and other petty crimes of opportunity. His wife Dahlia,
played by Minnie Driver, would be in on the cons, too, but she's a con
herself. She's just about to be released after two years in prison.
"The Riches" starts out with dad and kids invading a high school reunion. The
kids pick pockets and empty purses while dad, pretending to be one of the
graduates, takes over the festivities the way Vince Vaughn did in "The Wedding
Crashers." Then everyone reunites with mom, and that's what "The Riches" seems
to be about: a family of con artists trying to be honest with one another
while taking advantage of everyone around them.
Except that in this new inventive series from playwright Dmitry Lipkin, a
sudden tragedy alters everything. Two wealthy people, the Riches, die
suddenly in a remote auto accident. And Wayne and Dahlia are there to hide
their deaths and adopt their identities. Before you know it, Wayne and Dahlia
claim to be Doug and Cheri and move into the couple's brand-new home in a
lavish gated neighborhood.
You have to suspend a lot of disbelief to buy the premise. You have to
accept, for example, that the Riches bought this mini-mansion over the
Internet and that no one in the neighborhood has set eyes on them. And that
Doug Rich and his wife move to town not because of a new job but just because
of a prescheduled job interview with a major law firm.
But it's easy to go with the flow because Eddie Izzard as Wayne pretending to
be Doug is such a confident confidence man that he seduces the viewer as
quickly as he seduces his marks. The first day in his new home and his new
identity, he accepts a neighborly invitation to join a golf foursome, where he
meets up with a superwealthy superaggressive loudmouth named Hugh Panetta,
played by Gregg Henry. Hugh, thinking Doug to be the new lawyer in town,
takes his best shot. Then Wayne, as Doug, takes one of the drivers from
Doug's golf bag and takes his own best shot, right off the first tee.
(Soundbite from "The Riches")
Mr. GREGG HENRY: (As Hugh) I don't know you, do I?
Mr. EDDIE IZZARD: (As Doug) Oh, I'm with...
Mr. HENRY: (As Hugh) You mean, old sand trap here?
Unidentified Man: (As Jim) Doug, meet Hugh Panetta, biggest ass (censored by
station) east of the Mississippi.
Mr. HENRY: (As Hugh) You flatter me, Jim. How's that 30 handicap coming
So what do you do when you're not pissing on my golf course, Doug?
Mr. IZZARD: (As Doug) I'm a lawyer, Hugh.
Mr. HENRY: (As Hugh) Liar, huh?
Mr. IZZARD: (As Doug) A lawyer.
Mr. HENRY: (As Hugh) Isn't that what I just said? Where'd you go to lie
Mr. IZZARD: (As Doug) Georgetown, class of '88. Summa cum later, Hugh?
Mr. HENRY: (As Hugh) Well, it's a small world. Bill's a liar, Raymond's a
liar. I hear liars pull it left. How do you pull it, Doug?
Mr. IZZARD: (As Doug) Not your average liar, Hugh.
Mr. HENRY: (As Hugh) Oh.
(End of soundbite)
Mr. BIANCULLI: Eddie Izzard, a former stand-up comic, is all energy all the
time here. He's like Robert Preston in "The Music Man" and just as fast and
loose with the truth.
And Minnie Driver as Dahlia dives into her role completely. In tonight's
pilot, she spends most of the hour looking about as bad as an actress can
look, totally in keeping with her character's status as a recent ex-con with a
drug problem. But by episode three, in her attempt to pull off the biggest
con of her life, Dahlia metamorphoses into an absolute beauty. That con, of
course, is to hit the biggest score of all by going straight. The three kids
enroll in school, dad tries to find a job, and all of them try to hide from
the new head of the Gypsy clan who's after them for a very good reason.
I have no idea what led the folks at FX to consider casting two British actors
as Louisiana Gypsies, but Izzard and Driver succeed very nicely. Driver's
accent in particular is just right. Whenever one of these two is on screen,
"The Riches" is enjoyable. When both of them share the screen and take on one
another in passion or anger, it's absolutely incendiary.
Up to this point, the best FX drama series have been built around flawed
characters in noble professions, a rogue cop in "The Shield," opportunistic
surgeons in "Nip/Tuck," a self-destructive firefighter in "Rescue Me." With
"The Riches," the central characters are just as flawed, but they're no
heroes. Yet they're so smooth and gutsy, you end up rooting for them anyway.
GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for the New York Daily News.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you want to catch up on FRESH AIRs that you've missed, you can
download podcasts on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.